Archive for the ‘Fremantle writing’ Category

The ‘Climate Atlas’ and the cost of belief

March 17, 2018

“Climate change is often described as a ‘wicked problem.’ One of its wickedest aspects is that it may require us to abandon some of our most treasured ideas about political virtue: for example, ‘be the change you want to see.’ What we need is instead is to find a way out of the individualising imaginary in which we are trapped.” Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 2016, p135.

Amitav Ghosh is struggling with the role of literature and why he and other authors find it difficult to in any way speak to the climate crisis even as it unfolds around us. His contention in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) is that the novel, the primary form of literature, developed in precise alignment during the 19th Century with “the regularity of bourgeois life” (p25). He argues that it is this concern with regularity as well as a focus on the individual which makes the novel a form ill-suited to dealing with the magnitude and strangeness of the planet speaking back to us.

But this might be only one way in which the arts are implicated in the climate crisis as it is manifest around the globe. Ghosh asuggests that the visual arts (along with film and television) have found it much easier to address climate change (p83).

But what Ghosh perhaps doesn’t account for is that some people are ‘being the change’ specifically experimenting with ways out of the trap of the individualising imaginary. The political virtue of ‘being the change’ can take the form of collectivism and acknowledging the agency of all things. Climate Atlas, the current issue (#10) of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, is concerned with exactly the same challenge, not of what literature can do, but of what we can do. And it is also concerned with the dangers that in the arts we might think we stand aside from the climate crisis, drawing attention to it, but not responsible for it. It offers both small flickers of hope and also warnings.

The first thing we need to attend to is that the arts do not have a monopoly on imagining the world differently and showing ‘on the ground’ what that might look like. David Haley reminds us that the root of the word ‘art’ is in the Indo-Aryan noun/adjective rt which meaning ‘the dynamic process by which the whole cosmos continues to be created, virtuously.’ Thus art is not the property of people who identify themselves as professional artists, or even of people who would describe themselves as making art.

That being said when editors of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest sent out an open call in December 2015 they explained that this was,

“…a project charting concrete and abstract ecological relations that people operate within to address, bolster and alter (through creative work) their relationships to a changing world. The project will use the metaphors of geology to add to a conversation about what it is to live, create, and challenge our changing world. We aim to locate these tectonics and humors, and identify the characters of forces working to sustain and reshape our ecological world.” (from an email received 3 December 2015)

Ghosh says speaking about the world we are living in,

“For these changes are not merely strange in the sense of being unknown or alien; their uncanniness lies precisely in the fact that in these encounters we recognize something we had turned away from: that is to say, the presence and proximity of nonhuman interlocutors.” p30.

Both are seeking a different configuration, not wholly bound up in the human. The fifty eight projects hand-transcribed presumably from emails and then risographed onto A3 landscape paper that make up the body of Climate Atlas submitted in response to the call are all experiments at various stages and scales in imagining and making new relations between people, other living things, and contexts.* They are only the tip of the iceberg – for every project included, there are certainly 10, probably 100 and maybe 1000 like them. They range from small projects – activities that last a few months and are driven by an individual – to things like the ZAD and La Via Campesina, organisations and resistances which are multi-dimensional ongoing examples of being the change.

In addition to examples there are 5 essays which provide a measure of the challenges, for being the change at this point requires careful attention to several dimensions of imbrication: of the business of art; of “Escaping the apparatuses of capture such as the nuclear family, class condition, gender, identity, etc”; of the intervention by the state using militarised police against activism; of seeking ‘the other’ as a way to become alert to petro-subjectivity; and finally to understand that our ‘being the change’ is not appropriate to impose on other cultures and ways of living on this planet.

It is vital to recognise that the arts are the culture which needs to change. The arts are the problem as much as corporate capitalism is the problem. Art changes culture. But if art doesn’t change then culture doesn’t change either.

Ghosh is clearly deeply concerned that the primary literary form, the novel, may actually be part of the problem as a form, not merely in its instantiation in any particular novel. But the Climate Atlas opens up some other dimensions, each of which is an issue worthy of detailed attention. Each is worth exploring. One is the sponsorship of the arts by business, specifically in this case the sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale by Transfield, a corporation holding contracts for the mandatory detention of asylum seekers and refugees. But the trajectory of the critique following on from the action which forced Transfield to withdraw is into the formation of neo-liberal capitalism and the ways in which artists in particular behave has homo economicus,

“The point is not just that all artists must now also perform their artisthood but that the economization of culture and the culturization of economy involves distinctive forms of value creation.”

The Sydney Biennale Working Group is one of a number of activist groups including also the Gulf Labor Coalition and Liberate Tate deeply questioning the economics of the cultural industries. By any measure these political action has been successful – not only did Transfield cease sponsoring the Biennale, but it also had to rebrand. The Tate no longer accepts sponsorship from BP. Ways in which the arts have become bound up with migration and migrant labour are brought into the visible realm. The social license to operate provided by the cultural sector to business has been challenged. The bigger question of whether the culture of growth – bigger museums and bigger exhibitions – is being effectively brought into question remains unanswered as yet. Can we imagine a degrowth agenda for the cultural industries?

Another is focused by the conflicting assumptions between western liberal cultures and indigenous ways of life including seal hunting. This brings us up against so many assumptions, of ethical supremacy over savagery, of the ‘White-Saviour Industrial Complex‘, assumptions about sustainability and the need for predators within an ecosystem. Many indigenous peoples’ languages have no word for ‘art’. The things that have more recently come to be called ‘art’ are for indigenous peoples ways of understanding the world and communicating that understanding to each other. Those ways of knowing and being in the world are in complex relationships with other living things, complex relationships which urban metropolitan colonial settler culture doesn’t understand. But we still make judgements. We accept the privatisation of detention centres but we condemn killing seals. Our hypocrisy is boundless. Our effort to live differently minimal.

Just as this essay calls for setting aside assumptions and asks questions about our understanding, so the whole of Climate Atlas asks us to invest in doing something differently, and to be attentive to our imbrications. The introduction to the Issue says,

“…this issue recognizes thought and action that exceeds its own logics by insisting upon the central need for space of variation and for the other. So, while it is possible and useful to concisely order thought, in this curatorial space we have chosen to instead focus on how pieces sit rather than how they are organised. In the face of climate change, we prioritize lifes’ capacity to organize its own variation. To what end is one meaningful question.”

Art is powerful – we shape the world through the stories we tell ourselves and the arts comprise the best stories. We may try and take the canon to pieces, redraw its boundaries, question its white male privilege, its heteronormativity, but art still comprises the best stories. Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, eminent post-conceptual ecological artists and great storytellers say,

“Our work begins when we perceive an anomaly in the environment that is the result of opposing beliefs or contradictory metaphors. Moments when reality no longer appears seamless and the cost of belief has become outrageous offer the opportunity to create new spaces – first in the mind and thereafter in everyday life.” Quoted on www.theharrisonstudio.net accessed 10 November 2008

Climate Atlas draws attention to examples of people creating new spaces in the mind and in everyday life. It addresses the cost of belief and brings together examples of ways of facing the multifaceted crisis of climate change, the sixth extinction and rapid sea level rise. It draws attention to several of the large cracks in our reality.

* And remember David Haley also reminds us that ‘ecology is he study of organisms in relation to one another and to their surroundings, derived from the Greek word, oikos, meaning house, or dwelling.’

Report on AALERT

February 22, 2018

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This is a quick and personal reflection on the Art and Artists in Landscape and Environmental Research Today workshop (AALERT) held at the National Gallery London 15 Feb jointly sponsored by the Landscape Research Group and the Valuing Nature Programme of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), and supported by the Landscape & Arts Network. This is not an overview of the content of the day, including excellent presentations by Prof Stephen Daniels, Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway or the many threads and contributions. The intention is to focus on the key points in relation to the stated aim – understanding the contribution artists and art make to landscape and environmental research. We understand a more detailed summary will be published by the organisers.

The day brought together artists with natural and social scientists, and humanities academics. The key question was and remains what contribution art and artists can make to landscape and environmental research. The day was organized around questions of agency, value and how to embed artists with other disciplines. The fundamental problem is that many people don’t understand artists’ research. That being said, everyone ‘knows’ that there is a contribution. Most people don’t agree with Lewis Wolpert when he said,

“Although science has had a strong influence on certain artists – in the efforts to imitate nature and thus to develop perspective or in the area of new technologies – art has contributed virtually nothing to science.” (Wolpert, 2002)

Tim Collins opened proceedings with a quote highlighting that artists want to be dealt with as researchers rather than as subjects of research

“In the first place, the scene of research, centred on academic and scientific communities, will encounter new actors who will have to be considered no longer as objects of study, but as inquiring subjects themselves: the artist and the artist-as-researcher…. This means that, fourthly, research cultures will potentially be enriched with new narratives, discourses and modes of knowledge including knowledge of making (techne) and knowledge of the value systems that inform making (phronesis).” (Coessens et al., 2009, pp91-92)

This point is important because art and artists are often spoken for and about not least by art historians but also by anthropologists and other social scientists. We might argue that these interlocutors use evidence in forms which are ‘inter-operable’ with other forms of research evidence. The manifestation of artists’ research is at its core about making room to re-experience the world as (slightly) different, to pick up on Clive Cazeaux’s articulation. This ‘seeing it differently’ – and here we mean seeing in the widest sense, as in ‘understanding the possibility that it isn’t as we assume’ – is maybe neither quantitative nor qualitative. The concepts we use to understand the world shape both how and what we perceive. And also form how we make the world. This critical insight is valuable.

To be clear there are at least two meanings of research when used by artists (and even artists in the room conflated these). Pretty much all contemporary artists do research in the process of making work. In particular artists doing work with other disciplines, in public places, etc and in particular in landscape and environment, do a lot of research across a whole range of dimensions – social, historical, geographical, geological, ecological, etc – as preparation for making work. Sometimes this involves discovering new or forgotten things and sometimes it is functionally ‘familiarisation’ and assemblage of knowledge about a place or issue. Some artists do research informed by the same criteria as other academics – making a contribution to knowledge characterised by ‘originality, significance and rigour’. Artists don’t have to be in academic positions in research active institutions to do this, and in fact there is a long history of artists shaping our understanding of the world and sharing methods and processes so that others can learn. One difference, in addition to going beyond the specific project needs, is that the latter has a public dimension to the process and product which enables others to learn from it. Another difference is the positioning of the work with a social historical discourse. This in turn is one of the validations of the originality, significance and rigour requirement (which has been standardised over 26 years of UK research assessment).

The lack of awareness of this and its manifestation in artist-led work receiving 4* ratings in the 2014 REF was a cause of some frustration during the day.

Fundamentally each discipline and practice has a different way of knowing the world which are all equally valid. The challenge is that the ‘wicked’ problems we are facing including climate disruption, biodiversity loss and a warming planet require us to work together across traditional boundaries in teams. And teams need to understand each other. A quick rehearsal of Basarab Nicolescu’s formulation is useful (Nicolescu, 1997). He starts from the point that disciplines are valuable in themselves. He then talks about multi-disciplinary in terms of co-ordination of different disciplines’ methods; interdisciplinary in terms of learning from each other and hybridising; and trans-disciplinary as working across different levels of reality particularly where they are incommensurable e.g. between the scientific and the spiritual or data and emotions. He suggests that artists are particularly good at this.

Collins cited John Roberts, offering an articulation of this particular quality and its complexities. Roberts argues that art has a complex relationship with society at once enmeshed and autonomous. In particular he argues that, “one of the still operative functions of the artist – exploited extensively at the moment, as it is – is his or her ability to work with, reflect on, move through various non-artistic disciplines and practices without fully investing in them.” (Roberts, 2016, p112). Roberts calls this ‘adisciplinarity’ and he says,

“[t]his is because it is not the job of art to defend or extend the truth claims of a particular discipline, but to reflect on the discipline’s epistemological claims and symbolic status within the totality of non-art/ art disciplines and their social relations. When art draws, for example, from a particular scientific discipline such as physics, this is not in order to defend the truths of a particular branch of physics, but, rather, to use such truths as a reflection on physics as such, or as a means to reflect on the truth claims of other disciplines and practices.” (Roberts, p114)

This clarifies another aspect of discussion which focused on agency and autonomy. For artists to do what they do in terms of Roberts’ description, in terms of ‘seeing and/or making it differently’ they need a degree of autonomy, yet at the same time to work with others. This distinctive position, often within a team, is challenging and needs to be valued by others (including other academics but also funders and policy-makers), supported and given space. It raises anxiety in a risk averse culture. But it is fundamental to the contribution that art and artists can make, even if it is an idea that many struggle to recognise or understand how to ‘operationalise’.

One aspect which relates to this is that as artists (and curators, producers, writers) we have become very good at learning the languages of other disciplines and practices, their forms of evidence and their policy frameworks. The converse of this is that we don’t seem to have been very effective at articulating our forms of knowledge to other researchers and practitioners (this problem is as true in the context of arts and health as it is in research-led work).

Another related complexity flushed out during the day was that the conditions of participation need to be attended to, and the Artist Placement Group was referenced, including John Latham’s conceptualisation of the ‘Incidental Person’ as well as his and Barbara Steveni’s operating principles of Open Brief leading to Feasibility Study, the need for a willing host, and the need for commensurate pay (Steveni, 2003). This methodology has been developed within the arts to structure conditions for work in non-arts contexts.

This rich and provocative event opened up real questions on the contribution, conceptual and practical, of artists to landscape and environmental research. It opened up issues which need deeper reflection and consideration because without question the ‘wicked problems’ are increasingly the focus of research and policy. Whilst the Valuing Nature Programme may be nearing the conclusion of this phase of work it is highly likely that the next cycle of research will be larger with more challenging issues to address and it would be good to see more artists as Principal Investigators, Co-Investigators and Research Fellows helping to shape these projects, not just communicate the findings.

As the noted anthropologist Tim Ingold said recently,

“But while mainstream science continues to think of art as a medium for the communication of its own findings, it is now art, rather than science, that is leading the way in promoting radical ecological awareness.” (Ingold, 2017)

Ingold is echoing Roberts’ construction of arts adisciplinary role, pointing to the ways in which artists are re-imagining, even re-creating, our relationships with ecologies whether that is in the form of greater awareness and sensitivity or activism (and a range of other possibilities). All of these practices draw on the truths of various ecological sciences but also ask whether those truths are sufficient to articulate the value of the ecologies they claim to explain. The activists also use art to engage with the symbolic status of both the art and non-art social constructions (e.g. the social license to operate provided to the fossil fuel industry through sponsorship of cultural institutions). But that’s another subject.


Coessens, K., Douglas, A. and Crispin, D. 2009. The Artistic Turn: A Manifesto. Leuven University Press.

Ingold, T. 2017. The Art of Paying Attention. Aalto University. http://artofresearch2017.aalto.fi/keynotes.html accessed 16 February 2018

Nicolescu, B. 1997. The transdisciplinary evolution of learning. In Proceedings of the International Congress on What University for Tomorrow? Towards a Transdisciplinary Evolution of the University, Locarno, 30 April-2 May.
http://www.learndev.org/dl/nicolescu_f.pdf

Roberts, J., 2016. Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde. Verso

Steveni, B. 2003. Repositioning Art in the Decision-Making Processes of Society. In Interrupt Symposia. https://web.archive.org/web/20090107002604/http://interrupt.org.uk/symposia/educator/repositioning-art/ accessed 19 February 2018

Wolpert, L. 2002. Which Side Are You On? The Observer. 10 March. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/mar/10/arts.highereducation accessed 16 February 2018

The Same Hillside

May 25, 2017

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It was a seemingly unlikely pair forming the panel after the Crypic Nights premier of The Same Hillside at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. The one who looked like a farmer (checked shirt and flat cap) was the documentary film-maker John Wallace, the other (long hair and beard a t-shirt with a ‘pirate’ skull and crossbones) was soil scientist and a co-author of International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports Professor Pete Smith.* This art science collaboration has been going on for some years now and The Same Hillside is the third piece of work to result from this ongoing partnership. It’s interesting because there are several other on-going relationships between artists and natural and social scientists in Scotland at the moment, many focused upon land use, social impact and critical environmental change.

The Same Hillside is an immersive installation with projections on three screens as well as the floor, and a sound installation in the foyer. If I tell you it is an exploration of the landscape through the lens of Ecosystems Services (this is an extension of ideas about nature as capital, something with social and economic value) you might think it belongs on the Open University YouTube channel rather than in an arts centre. You couldn’t be more wrong.

John Wallace described his interest as a documentary film-maker in finding structures or lenses external to himself to use in constructing his work. These ‘constraints’ are devices John Wallace uses to clarify his current inquiry and focus upon what interests him. It forces him to follow other lines and explore subjects he might not otherwise take up on his own. Hearing Pete Smith talking about Ecosystem Services Assessment (a method of assessing the services that aspects of an ecosystem provides to human society) and the aspects of land-use that this reveals, John Wallace saw potential for a way to explore and make strange again a landscape with which he was deeply familiar. This was a chance to see with fresh eyes.

It isn’t common knowledge, but three major Scottish rivers flow from one hillside in the South of Scotland to opposite sides of the country: the Annan into the Solway Firth, the Clyde through Glasgow into the Firth of Clyde, and the Tweed into the North Sea. With this in mind, Pete Smith and John Wallace defined a 20 mile radius ‘study area,’ that worked from the common ground at the top of these three watersheds. The questions they wanted to explore revolve around the ways that these networks of land and water delight and serve human communities.

Wallace set out to explore different aspects of these ecosystems in relation to the ‘services’ provided to human society. Ecosystems provide natural products and raw materials such as food, wood and water, when intact and healthy they regulate flooding process, turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, they support us by recycling nutrients and enabling pollination. The Cryptic Nights information sheet notes,

“The area is home to five drinking water reservoirs, over 300MW of installed wind capacity, the West Coast Main Line, 400kV power transmission lines, the M74 motorway, thousands of acres of commercial forestry, hill farms, salmon redds, blanket bogs, and rare and delicate subalpine habitats.”

Ecosystems also provide aesthetic, biodiversity and spiritual services, a set of cultural interrelationships that have proven more difficult on to which to put economic value.

As a documentary film-maker John Wallace sought out the human stories which reveal deep and complicated relationships, a lifetime of meaning. Whether that’s the train driver talking about the impact of one 40-car supermarket haul and how many trucks that takes off the road, or the modern Saw Mill that uses the waste material to generate energy. John Wallace’s style is not interrogative or even prodding. So it is interesting when climate change keeps coming up in different narratives. It’s clearly an essential part of the reality for a wide range of people living, working and managing transport in the Scottish landscape.

Whilst ‘place’ as a vital facet of identity has been a signal thread in Scottish art-making for at least a generation, it usually focuses on a recognisable place. The Same Hillside focuses on a part of the country that supports a lot of other ‘places’, the towns and cities downstream. It embeds a bioregional or watershed-based approach: Dumfries, Glasgow, Berwick and all the other settlements on the Annan, Clyde and Tweed are all dependent on the health and viability of this upland territory.

John Wallace’s interviews with people living and working in this place focus upon the production and transmission of energy; the transportation routes; the scale of commercial forestry and the range of resulting products, the value of the peatland in sequestering carbon, as well as a means of provisioning game for hunting sport. The last scenes follow a group exploring the Spring at Hartfell as a specific example of the cultural and spiritual dimension of the landscape.

Underlying John Wallace’s sensitive handling of people and landscapes are the sorts of data sets that Pete Smith works with. Where the films on the screens take our conscious attention with stories, the data projected on the floor is telling another story, of car and truck movements on the M74, of rainfall, of the monitoring of land-use.

What is apparent watching The Same Hillside is that some bad decisions have been made in this landscape in the past – planting commercial forestry on the best farmland and draining the peat for grazing are two striking examples. After hearing about healthy watersheds with forest cover it was curious to look at images in the closing minutes. The last shot features long views from the hilltop down through the valley where there is hardly a tree to be seen. Here, water is sacred and aesthetics is provided by nature. Nature necessitates a healthy highland and stream corridor with plants and trees to regulate flow and temperature allowing for best conditions for all living things. Is the spirit in place, without its animating forces?

The Same Hillside (and the earlier works Cinema Sark and Sark-Tweed) don’t fit into existing categories of documentary film or installation art. They draw on languages of place and site-specificity, but also, albeit quietly, of everyday activism. They speak to the Anthropocene, that humans are affecting everything, without ever mentioning the term. The sawmill using its own waste product to generate energy is a form of attention to process, which goes beyond everything being focused by ‘the product’.

We need more productive partnerships between people like Professor Pete Smith and John Wallace – processes that extend beyond a project into a long term dialogue, interactions between those who work with data and inform policy, and those who work with sound, image, form and narrative. These connections with the artists and film-makers draw the sciences into the everyday of a critically positioned arts practice. Working across disciplines can challenge assumptions and lead to the emergence of new forms.

With thanks to Tim Collins for his comments and suggestions.

* The partnership between Wallace and Smith started during Do Not Resuscitate a series of events organised by Mike Bonaventura, then CEO of the Critchon Carbon Centre. Do Not Resuscitate brought together artists and scientists, drawing on the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programmes. The first piece of work resulting from this collaboration was Cinema Sark (2013), presented as part of the Environmental Art Festival Scotland, and focusing on the River Sark which is the boundary between Dumfries & Galloway and Cumbria, between Scotland and England. Wallace and Smith’s partnership isn’t the only significant outcome of Do Not Resuscitate – it contributed to the shape of the Environmental Art Festival Scotland and led to a residency programme Nil by Mouth.

A Field of Wheat: whose art?

March 2, 2017

This piece was originally published as part of the A Field of Wheat project in September 2016 at the invitation of the artists. The images are all courtesy of the artists.


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20th August 2016 I got an email headlined “The Wheat has been Harvested”. It wasn’t a metaphor. A field of wheat in Branston Booths, Lincolnshire, the central focus of an art project of that name, has been harvested. That’s good news given that a number of us invested in this project, and again I don’t mean metaphorically.

Even if neither the wheat nor the investments are metaphorical, how is such a literal field of wheat in any way art?

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Artists have represented farming; agriculture has been a subject in art in various ways, probably since the beginning of agriculture. There are various points where it becomes something ‘new’, for example in Dutch renaissance painting or Courbet in the 19th Century but farming appears in ancient Egyptian art too. Agnes Denes’ 1982 artwork Wheatfield: A Confrontation grown on the Battery Park Landfill is an iconic piece of environmental public art. It contributed to the mainstream acceptance of issues-based, activist public art. Denes’ statement about the work framed it as challenging the value of land (in 1982 at the time of making the work the Battery Park Landfill was valued at $4.5 billion dollars). The wheat grown was included in a touring exhibition concerned with world hunger. Denes also cites the juxtaposition of growing (the field) with exchange (Wall Street). All of these are aspects of a ‘new’ interest in agriculture by artists in the past 50 years.

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But there is also an art of farming, and perhaps all farmers are to some extent exercising their art every day. This might sound facile, but the boundary that defines ‘art’ is one largely constructed by the art market and it’s key operators: curators, gallery owners and collectors. Artists have a particular relationship with art from this perspective because functionally others (not artists) define the value of art. This of course is true for farmers too – they are equally dependent on other professions and structures which define value.

This way of thinking about art and the arts is David Haley’s. He says,

The word “art‟ is derived from the ancient Sanskrit word, “rta‟. Rta retains its meaning in contemporary Hindi as a noun-adjective for the dynamic process by which the whole cosmos continues to be created, virtuously. It refers to the right way of evolution and we still talk about excellence, or the correct way of doing something as an “art‟ – the art of cooking, the art of football, the art of gardening, “The Art of Archery‟, “The Art of Making Cities‟, and even “The Art of War‟.

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If this is the case then Peter Lundgren, the farmer collaborating with Anne-Marie Culhane and Ruth Levene on the project A Field of Wheat is practising his art in the way that they are practising theirs.

In this case both are stepping beyond the existing constructions of value as determined by the institutions that normally enable their practices (the art world and agri-business).

Culhane, Levene and Lundgren have connected us directly to food in a way that is different from any other experience. They offered us a chance to invest in a field of wheat. To be precise Middle Field on Lundgren’s 100 acre farm. In this case investing is probably a bit like investing was in the 18th century – you visit your investment (though not if you live too remotely) and you participate in decision-making – discussing the issues and voting with other investors on key decisions around fertilisers and the sale of the wheat. It is facilitated by digital technology but the decisions are not being made by algorithms on trading floors in London or Chicago, but rather by individuals at desks in home-offices.

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It’s genuinely fascinating to be an intermediary, an investor, part of the financial industry engaged in agriculture, but to do it at a level where you know exactly what you are investing in and with whom. There is risk. That’s been clear from the outset. Of course now the wheat is in, the risk is vastly reduced.

It’s not surprising that the group in a Collective Decision (preceded by a Collective Enquiry) has chosen to use the least fertiliser and to sell the wheat through the Openfield, the British farmers’ co-op (rather than through Frontier, a Carghill subsidiary), but the participants (investors) have also brought research and expertise to the process.

The discursive process constructed by the artists aimed to draw participants into a dialogue around the issues before any decision was made, hence the Collective Enquiry phase. The Collective Decision is straightforwardly democratic, but the aim has been to ensure that it is made with care, rather than in haste. Culhane speaks of “holding a level platform” in her blog http://fieldofwheat.co.uk/artists-pages/spaces-for-listening/ on the subject. Good deliberative practice and good socially engaged arts practice.

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However underpinning this is a deeper commitment from the artists to an understanding of the value of Collective Silence as an important aspect of a carefully judged and constructed process. A Field of Wheat has taken place on-line and through live events. Quaker approaches to silence as part of a careful life have been used to avoid the negative characteristics of on-line debate and discussion, particularly encouraged by dealing with communications on hand-held devices which contextually and practically encourage brevity. Asking people to spend time in silence before responding to issues has led to respectful and careful discussions.

Another approach to this issue of personal reflective connection comes from the Final Straw project. Final Straw is a film about Natural Farming (or biodiverse farming) as it is practiced in Korea and Japan. In a recent blog from the Final Straw project http://www.thenatureofcities.com/2016/08/21/farmers-chefs-and-lawyers-building-an-ecology-of-one/ , Patrick Lydon noted that farmers practising this form of agriculture will often seek a very close connection with the consumers of their produce. Lydon, and Suhee Kang (his collaborator) have, in parallel, been experimenting with ‘real time food’ where you order the food to eat in 10 weeks after it has been grown. They highlight a number of examples of food producers, farmers and chefs, forming long term relationships with their customers.

The idea of a ‘third space’ is particular to social art practices. A third space is different from commercial or formal public spaces. Those are characterised by either markets and extraction of value, or by bureaucratic structures and legal processes. Social art practices, as exemplified by A Field of Wheat, as well as other examples like Denes’ Wheatfield and Lydon and Kang’s Final Straw, can create different ways for people to engage with issues of common interest. These usually focus on issues of public good, but not so often through creating a ‘third space’ for an engagement with the economics of a ‘public’ issue such as food and farming.

A Field of Wheat took two years to develop. We are still in the process and will be until the wheat is sold. The art project will probably go on to produce a book and the farmer will continue the agricultural cycle. The wider implications of A Field of Wheat will take longer to manifest. I wonder how the Collective Dialogue would evolve? How would the economy evolve? What would it be like to be part of farming long term, all practising our arts together?

 

Ingold’s Sustainability of Everything

September 25, 2016

Sustainability is an overused word.  It is much diminished by its occurrence in too many documents purporting to suggest that transport, local government or how anything is sustainable following the end of grant funding.  But we know that sustainability matters and thinking out of the current construction doesn’t happen nearly enough.

Tim Ingold’s lecture at the Centre for Human Ecology (Pearce Institute, Govan) on Saturday 10 September was entitled ‘The Sustainability of Everything’.  This provocative phrase came from an invitation to talk at a previous event about sustainability in relation to art and science, citizenship and democracy, love and friendship.

Ingold used ‘everything’ including qualities and processes as a way to open up a trenchant criticism of not merely the usage of sustainability but more widely the turn in science to data and the atomisation of everything.

Tim Ingold is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen.  He is known for his distinctive, arts and humanities inflected approach to anthropology.  He is currently leading ‘Knowing from the Inside’, a major European Research Council funded project involving anthropologists, archaeologists, architects and artists.

For Ingold the question of sustainability is not “How can we carry on doing what we are doing but with a bit less waste and impact?” but rather “What kind of world has a place for us and future generations?” “What does carrying on mean?” and more practically speaking “How do we make it happen?”

The key point is that everything in Ingold’s sense is not the collection of all the individual bits, but something different.  His problem with current science and current constructions of sustainability are their reliance on isolating something to analyse it.  Ingold comes at things looking for movement and entanglement rather than boundary.  To make this point he uses examples where either you don’t know where one thing ends and another starts, or examples of things in motion.  So he asks for instance whether the bird’s nest is part of the tree?  Or whether the wind that has made the tree grow bent over is part of the tree?  He asks if you can tell which part of the eddy in the stream is the ‘inside’ and which is the ‘outside’?

The importance of this approach is that it opens up new ways of experiencing and knowing which are more process oriented rather than object oriented.  Artists in particular respond enthusiastically to this way of knowing.

Ingold further developed this through Lucretius’ idea that everything is in motion and when things bump into each other they form knots – clouds are knots of water and temperature and wind.  Trees are complex knots.  Ingold evolves the idea of knots by pointing out that rope stays together through a combination of twist and friction.  He notes that harmony (eg polyphonic music) is exactly the same – a combination of elements that in themselves might initially appear to be in conflict but in relationship with each other are beautiful.  Again he’s nodding to artists ways of knowing.  In his terms everything is a “correspondence of parts” – not a totality but rather a carrying on.

Having set up this alternative way of understanding Ingold highlighted how current formulations of sustainability are underpinned by an assumption that the “entire earth is a standing reserve” and that we need to protect the earth in the way that a company protects its profits.  He drew attention to the underlying corporate or management language implicit in these descriptions of sustainability and how this is true of conservation organisations as much as corporations and governments. Furthermore of course Paulo Friere provided a deep critique of the ‘banking’ model of education which is closely aligned with this accounting version of sustainability.

Having established what he meant by ‘everything’, Ingold went on to construct an idea of ‘carrying on’.  To do this he referred to traditional ways of forestry in Japan where there is a dynamic relationship between the forester, the forest and the building of a house articulated in a 30 year cycle – trees take 30 years to grow and a house needs renewed every 30 years.  Trees are planted, foresters learn to build houses, trees are cut to build houses, trees are planted.  It is very different from the forms of plantation forestry and clear felling we experience across much of Scotland.

In conclusion Ingold came back to the themes of art and science, citizenship and democracy, peace and friendship.  He suggested that science has reneged on its commitment to understanding the world in ways that are useful for life, and that in his view environmental arts do this more effectively now.  He talked about the need for a politics of difference and the importance of embracing tension and agonism.

Reflecting on this talk there are a few key points that are worth teasing out of Ingold’s valuable line of argument.

Firstly, the construction of sustainability currently offered in ‘sustainable development’ and ‘ecosystems services’ is fundamentally human-centric and has lost any connection with the ‘existence value’ of the non-human as constructed by the likes of Arne Naess, Gregory Bateson and many others which were early inspirations of the environmental movement (and remain very influential on environmental arts). Ingold’s focus on entanglement and movement is a useful counter to ‘banking’ approaches. *

Secondly, we need to recognise that our current construction of sustainability is only one possible construction.  It is in terms of conventional ethics basically a form of Utilitarianism – the greatest good for the greatest number.  And in this respect it suffers from all the criticisms of Utilitarianism in being fundamentally subjective and in environmental terms challenging – if more than half the world’s population lives in cities then what is good for cities must be good for humans – that is a bizarre thought (although one often promoted by architects and urban planners)!  But the point is that Ingold is providing an underpinning articulation of ‘being’ that asks for a different ethics – one which accepts the conflicts but accords value to the connectedness of everything and its motion.  So he positively argued against the conservation of trees and in favour of the carrying on of planting and growing, felling and building as a cycle. Perhaps Ingold doesn’t go far enough – Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, eminent ecological artists, argue that we need to ‘put more back into ecological systems than we take out’ in our carrying on. By this they mean that our cycles need to be weighted to greater biodiversity and strengthening ecological cycles.

Finally Ingold’s construction, particularly of ‘knots’ is useful if we recognise that we humans are arch constructors of knots.  Everything we make is some sort of knot whether it’s food or paths or roads or houses or nuclear power stations or mustard gas or satellites.  And if we can imagine a knot then we will make it.  If its been imagined then someone is trying to make it, somewhere.  That’s an interesting problem.  It’s prompted discussions around what ‘responsible innovation’ might be. How can we create knots that make for healthier places for all living things.

 

* I’m indebted to Dave Pritchard for elucidating this evolution through the sequence of major environmental summits starting in Stockholm in 1972 and progressing in 10 yearly intervals through to Rio+20 in 2012.  He correlated this with the shift from an environmentalism of ‘existence value’ through to ‘ecosystems services’ and ‘sustainable development’.  Each Summit sought to achieve greater policy impact and as a result reframed in terms of acceptable (human-centric) policy.

 

Why Land Art Generator in Scotland?

August 31, 2016

Video from the Test Unit Pecha Kucha at the Whisky Bond, Glasgow, July 2016, which provides a context for LAGI Glasgow.  Thanks to TAKTAL for the opportunity.


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